It’s fair to say that most mealtimes these days are casual affairs. But that’s no reason not to do things properly, especially if it’s an important occasion like a birthday, anniversary or you’re having the boss to dinner.
So to get some proper advice on the art of hosting and laying a good table, we attended a fine dining masterclass with Nicolas Defremont, Restaurant Director at Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester Hotel, London. What follows is Nicolas’ ‘12 Service Commandments’.
1. Consult your wine merchant for pairing suggestions
Your local wine merchant can recommend the best pairings for your menu. Don’t be scared of unusual pairings - be adventurous. Red wine could match fish depending on the recipe; a dry white wine such as a Chardonnay is always good for an aperitif.
2. Share your knowledge about the dishes with guests
It is essential that the host is familiar with all the dishes served. Offering guests insightful information regarding the produce (where it has been sourced, why it has been chosen, etc) makes for interesting talking points around the table.
3. Always have a crisp, ironed tablecloth
At Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, the front of house team iron the tablecloths three times! The trick to a perfect finish is to dampen it slightly before ironing.
4. Keep your table simple and personalised
Remove all unnecessary items to keep a clean table and avoid large centrepieces like bouquets of flowers, tall candles and anything scented that can interfere with conversations and flavours.
5. Women should be served first
Service order should be as follows: women, men and host last.
6. Keep your plates warm in the oven
Plating your dishes on warm plates means that the food will be kept hot for longer.
7. Look after guests throughout the meal
Start the evening off with an aperitif; offer salted and unsalted butter with a variety of fresh bread throughout the meal; and finish off with some sweet treats like bonbons or chocolates. Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester offers fresh infusions from a trolley at the end of the meal - you can recreate this at home by buying some fresh mint, peppermint, and pineapple sage; cut it before your guests arrive and arrange it in a nice glass jar.
8. Keep spare china and cutlery on a sideboard in the dining room
Having extras within reach saves you a trip to the kitchen.
9. Polish all tableware before setting the table
Shine the glasses straight after they’ve been washed to ensure that there are no unsightly smudges. For best results, clean all china and cutlery with a mixture of white vinegar and hot water. Wash and polish glasses by hand as dishwasher tablets can leave residue on glassware. If you use silverware, clean it in a mix of water, salt, vinegar and foil paper.
10. Remember to keep glasses topped up throughout the meal
No one should have to ask for a re-fill.
11. Always clear the dish from the same side that you served it
This means that with the exception of the bread plate, everything should be cleared from the right-hand side. You could clear from the most convenient side so as not to interfere with your guests! But always with the exterior arm.
12. The table should be cleared before dessert is served
All dishes, glasses, condiments, even salt & pepper shakers should be cleared and the table crumbed before dessert is served. Remember to re-set a bread plate if you’re serving a cheese course. Bring a fresh (and different if possible) napkin before dessert.
Nicolas' classes are very informative, and include a tour of the kitchens, the wine cellar, and the chance to hang out in a three Michelin star restaurant. There’s also a 30-minute tasting session with sommelier Vincent Pastorello. Vincent will take participants through the right ways to prepare wine, including information on decanters and the ideal time to open a bottle. Popular beverage myths will be addressed and throughout the session, guidance will be offered on how to buy, taste and pair wines.
One final point I noticed is that being a French restaurant, the forks were laid with the tines facing down - something I’ve occasionally seen in France before. Nicholas explains why: "If you were an aristocratic family, you would have your own coat of arms (blazon in French) on the back of the head of the fork, and would want to show it off".